Sustainable agriculture and food systems - Chatham House Study

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Report by Prof Tim Benton and Dr Helen Harwatt on sustainability in farming, regenerative agriculture, agroecology and land sparing vs sharing.


Modern methods of food production are increasingly recognized as a major contributor to global warming, air and water pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and the emergence of disease. In turn, climate change is compromising food security and supply-chain resilience, with related natural disasters driving up food prices. Under the free market system, increasing productivity has been emphasized as the way to meet rising global demand for food.

How to move towards sustainability in agriculture, and in food systems more generally, has become an ever more urgent topic of debate at international level. There is little or no consensus among policymakers on how this can be done. Practices such as land conversion in some areas of the world, to create space for increased meat and dairy production, can cancel out environmental gains in other locations and lead to reduced sustainability of the overall food system.

This paper seeks to clarify the debate around sustainability in agriculture by examining two distinct versions of sustainability. Each is discussed in terms of its clearly defined underpinning assumptions, including the key question of whether large-scale changes in demand towards healthier, less wasteful and more sustainable diets are possible.



  • There is significant and growing recognition of the need to transform food systems to reduce their environmental impact. This has increased attention on the need for agriculture to become more ‘sustainable’.
  • However, for many reasons, there is no widely agreed conceptualization of how different approaches to agriculture contribute to the sustainability of food systems.
  • This paper sets out to compare and contrast two commonly articulated versions of how agriculture and food systems are related, and how food systems may become more sustainable. Version 1 focuses on sparing land for nature, and on increasing the productivity of agricultural land while minimizing environmental impacts; Version 2 focuses on scaling up nature-friendly farming while emphasizing demand-side changes in order to reduce the overall pressure on land.
  • For one version to be preferred over another, a range of assumptions are explicitly or implicitly made: these assumptions are presented alongside the related critiques. In each version, a key assumption concerns the role of the market and the degree to which market failure could (or should) be addressed by structural change. This assumption underpins whether large-scale changes in demand (particularly towards healthier diets) are achievable or even desirable.
  • If it is assumed that demand will necessarily grow (because the global population and its wealth are projected to increase), it follows that growth in productivity is needed, and sparing land for nature may contribute towards sustainability goals. In contrast, if it is assumed that structural change can occur within markets, and healthier diets can be adopted, demand growth is arguably not a certainty – in which case nature-friendly farming (‘agroecological practices’) can be scaled, because, in comparison with intensive systems, relatively lower yields at farm level pose less of a constraint.
  • The arguments in support of both Version 1 and Version 2 of sustainable agriculture and food systems tend to be primarily based on assumptions that may be pragmatic (‘that is the way the world is’), or that may relate to power relationships and politics, particularly with respect to the primacy given to the role of the market. Ultimately, such assumptions have an ideological basis rather than a scientific one. Both versions of sustainable agriculture are informed by a set of assumptions that can be challenged, and these assumptions should be assessed transparently in order to achieve the goal of truly sustainable farming and food systems.
  • Transforming agriculture is acknowledged to be important in meeting a range of environmental and social challenges, yet there is a lack of consensus vision for what a transformed and sustainable agriculture should be. Promotion of one version of agriculture over the other has many important implications, including:
    • How sustainability is incentivized across different scales and geographies and, in turn, how major societal challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and human health, are tackled.
    • Whether coherence at the international level can occur across climate, nature, food and health agendas to tackle the goals jointly with similar approaches.
    • Whether it is possible to channel investments in innovation to deliver better systemic outcomes.
    • Whether there can be better coordination between civil society and progressive corporations to drive change.
  • Given that the promotion of one version of sustainability in agriculture has profound implications, a transparent and critical analysis of what is being assumed to enable that version to be achieved sheds light on the extent to which that vision may, or may not, be achievable.




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